The Pungent and The Sweet
My friend had taken her seder plate down from the wall, where it usually hangs under the Mexican folk art sconce I gave her and her almost spouse a few years ago. Now, it was on the table, its scroll-like calligraphy nearly hidden by the egg, the parsley, the chicken bone (they didn't have lamb), and the horseradish. Off in the kitchen, a ham was waiting for the next day's Easter gathering. They are that kind of couple, it was that kind of weekend.
The horseradish had been prepared by another friend, ground from her own roots with some fresh beets thrown in. It was a gorgeous zinfandel color, unlike the horseradish in my picture, which came from a jar and looks more like applesauce. I was greedy for it, ate it on my matzo and my brisket and even licked it from my stained fingertips.
I almost named this post, "Back when I was Jewish." I wasn't really, but I was married to a Jewish man for nearly twenty years who had grown up in a tiny town in the Catskills. I had been madly in love with him--at least, for a long time--and adored his family, as well as the friends and relatives who filled their lives. I wasn't Jewish, but I had a Jewish last name and knew a bracing handful of Yiddish epithets and looked more like my in-laws than my husband did. People would walk into my mother-in-law's office, see the portrait of my husband and me on her desk, and say, "Your daughter married such a nice-looking boy!" During my brief stint in corporate communications at American Greetings, someone once came to ask me if I was interested in managing the Jewish card and gift-wrap lines. She was surprised when I said that I wasn't, you know, really Jewish.
My in-laws weren't religious, and I never went to a seder in their home. In fact, they were adamantly anti-religious; his father had equal opportunity contempt for both rabbis and priests. But all the ingredients at the seder the other night-- the matzo, the gefilte fish, the brisket, the horseradish--were regulars on their table.
The horseradish often came from friends who lived on a chicken farm in an even tinier town than theirs; I don't think it had more than a outhouse-sized post office and a one-pump gas station. I always wanted to write about these friends, and now I'm sorry I didn't. Two brothers and their wives shared an old house across the road from a pond where they all fished summer and winter, through the ice. My husband and his sister had been regular visitors there when they were growing up, and then we--with our children--went calling every time we visited his parents.
It was a magical place. The two brothers and their wives were small and the rooms of the house were small and so crowded with wonders-- thousands of books and little sculptures and bowls of candy and platters of bowtie cookies and a baby grand piano and large chairs in which the small people looked like slightly wizened children, burnished with kindness and humor. One of the wives was such a lovely person. She was my mother-in-law's best friend; when she died, years after my divorce, I think my mother-in-law started to die, too. This woman was the smallest of the four. Her high-heeled shoes fit the children perfectly and she didn't mind if they clomped around in them. She always made egg salad before we came, and it was always perfect, the Platonic ideal of egg salad realized.
Outside, one of the brothers had a large garden, untended and unfenced. He planted enough, he said, to share with the rabbits and the deer. There was always a circle of chairs near the garden but under the reach of the trees where we sat in the summers and talked. These were long meandering hours with no urgency, no agenda. The other brother had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had stories, but you had to beg them from him; mostly, he liked to talk about the fish across the road and the funny things that people were doing around the county. He was my father-in-law's best friend (serendipitously, he was married to the woman with the tiny shoes). When my father-in-law died, the grief of it dimmed something forever in this brother.
The four of them made their own horseradish once a year in a big building attached to the back of their house. I think they used this room to inspect and package eggs the rest of the time, but when they ground the horseradish it was as if someone had lobbed tear gas into the room. When we'd pull up their long, weedy driveway during horseradish season, our eyes would start to water before we got out of the car. We'd have to run through this room with our arms across our eyes to get into the house, to reach for the perfect egg salad and the platter of bowtie cookies and the tiny shoes.
Those days now seem so perfect-- like scenes from a old movie or exquisite little paintings or even charms hanging from a bracelet. I don't know why someone older and wiser didn't pull me aside and tell me that these days wouldn't last, that these people wouldn't last, that the angers and disappoinments and anxieties that took up too much of my time should be pushed aside, as much as possible, so that I could partake more fully in the life that bloomed in this particular way for only a while. Maybe they didn't know this themselves. Maybe it seemed too obvious to mention.
That's the way it was; that's the way I thought it would always be.
Am I the only one who looks back in surprise?